By SADIE PRICE-ELLIOTT, age 13
Come standardized testing season this spring, some students are planning to stay home. Students and parents across the country, in greater numbers than ever before, are choosing to opt out of the annual assessments, saying that they are too stressful for students, teachers and schools alike, and that they don’t actually reflect how well a student is doing.
“By the time my younger son hit fifth grade, teachers were talking about the tests the first week of school,” said Nancy Cauthen, a parent and standardized testing activist with a group called Change the Stakes. That makes sense, since some tests determine whether students move on to the next grade—and whether teachers will receive a pay cut. They also determine how much funding the school gets, with schools that underperform often receiving less.
Activists also note that the tests can be particularly challenging for students who are just learning English, but they still have to take the same tests.
“[English language learners] are two, three, four levels behind. And then they’re told about their failures, then the school is labeled as a failure,” said teacher Vici Smith, a supporter of the opt-out movement, to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.
Activists also suggest that the tests are connected to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a system that punishes students of color harshly and conditions them for an unsuccessful future. According to the editor of the magazine Rethinking Schools, “The more that schools—and now individual teachers—are assessed, rewarded and fired on the basis of student test scores, the more incentive there is to push out students who bring down those scores.”
Why are the stakes so high for these tests? Some U.S. politicians claim that it’s because the United States has fallen behind other countries like China when it comes to test scores, especially in math.
Opting out has its own consequences, which vary from school to school. Because test scores are generally tied to a student’s ability to move on to the next grade, parents have to work directly with teachers and principals to find alternatives to the test.
But activists say the tests don’t accurately capture how well students are doing. One alternative that Change the Stakes supports is keeping a portfolio of academic progress with samples of student work from throughout the year and written reflections. That doesn’t mean tests have to be eliminated altogether, though, says Nancy Cauthen.
“Some standardized tests are ok,” she says. “They provide a way to see how different groups of students are doing within a school, a district or a state. But we don’t need to test every third to eighth grader in every school every year to get that information.”
Cauthen says opting out is the best way to make standardized tests less important. Last year, 60,000 students from New York opted out of tests. According to Newsworks, in one Philadelphia school 20 percent of the student population has opted out for this year. In a February 19 blog post for the Washington Post, New York principal Carol Burris encouraged the movement, declaring, “The future of our children is hanging from testing’s high stakes. The time to opt out is now.”